Blood on the Snow: Chapter 20 (draft)

Oddly enough, when Archer raised the issue of Caine’s current state at the war council the next day, it was Viola of all people who was the first to grasp the enormity of what he was suggesting.

“You’re not fucking serious, are you?”

“Much as I wish it was otherwise, yes. Yes, I am.” He leaned forward, steepling his fingers and resting his chin on the top of them as he surveyed his assembled motley crew. “This goes no further than the four of us, for the moment – until I have confirmation that my theory is sound, spreading rumours of a Turned at large in the city is only going to add fuel to the already-burning fire, and, quite apart from anything else, I’ve little desire to have the good captain any angrier with our side than she already is.”

The other three nodded, faces grave. After a moment, Fest cleared his throat, looked down at his feet, and then said, hesitantly “Mr Archer?”


“Aren’t Turned… you know. Not real?”

Archer opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say a word, Viola had already intervened.

“Of course they’re bloody real. Real, and insanely bloody dangerous.” She stood up, pacing back and forth on the hearthrug. “I never fought one myself – you can tell by how I’m still here – but, back when I was very very small, there was one who came out into the steppe. I don’t know what it wanted, but it killed nearly half a camp of one of the clans before they managed to put it down for good – just… ripped them apart, as though they were made of paper or straw, for all that they were most of ‘em fighters and at least as strong as me. After they’d killed it, they cut its head off, cut out its heart and burned the corpse – but still, twenty years on, no-one’ll use that staging place any more for fear it might somehow put itself together and come back for another go at the ones it missed.” She paused, blew out a breath, and continued, in a somewhat quieter tone: “Archer’ll tell you what they’re like as far as vampires know, and he’s going to be right about that. But as far as everyone I know tells it, they’re bad news in the worst possible way. Which means if Caine’s one of them-”

“-we’re fucked,” Sabbat finished, draining his glass of tea and slamming it back onto the table hard enough that every non-human in the room (which was to say, everyone other than him) winced. “He knew who I was, back on that soddin’ rooftop. If he comes lookin’ fer me again, what’s t’say he ain’t goin’ t’pick off someone else Order along the way?”

“Or just some poor bugger who happens to be walking down the wrong street,” Viola added. “Unless the watchman and Rose were somehow connected to the Order, he’s killing ordinary folk just to feed on.”

“We don’t know they weren’t connected to the Order,” Archer pointed out. “In the case of Carr, I’ve asked the Captain of the Old Town Watch for a copy of his file – if he’s a family member of one of our operatives or associates, we should be able to find out from that. I’m also making inquiries into his friends and contacts, given it’s entirely possible he was passing information to someone connected to us. Even I don’t know how wide some of our nets go, and, given everything, I’d rather not assume there’s no connection only to find one coming back to bite us later. Rose… well, given that’s almost certainly not her original name, and she told her coworkers almost nothing about where she came from, I suspect whatever connections she might have to the Order are going to be even harder to discover.”

“Why’re you so fuckin’ set on the idea they got killed fer bein’ linked to us?” Sabbat asked. “Assumin’ he’s a Turned, ain’t it more likely Cervanso’s right an’ he’s killin’ ‘em t’feed off?”

“Yes,” Archer admitted. “It is, in fact, a good deal more likely that he’s killing opportunistically and for food than it is that he’s going on some sort of targeted spree against Order operatives and those with even minor connections to us.” He held up a hand, forestalling the inevitable complaint. “However, Caine was no fool when he was a human. He held more information on the Order’s membership and activities than any other member of the Sinnlenst and, if he retains even a half of what he knew before he was Turned, it’s entirely possible that he’s decided to kill two birds with one stone – sate his hunger, and start removing our people and terrifying those who remain into questioning their decision to ally with us.”

“Then why start with people whose connections are so hidden even we don’t know what they are?” Fest asked. He scuffed a boot on the carpet, still staring at his feet. “I mean, assuming that’s not a stupid question. Sorry.”

“It’s not a stupid question, Fest. And again, the fact that they’re not immediately obvious as our people means that it’s far more likely that yes, they were killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But in the game which we play – a game which, I’m afraid, you’re going to have to learn the rules to a good deal faster than I’d have liked – you learn very quickly that something which looks innocuous is very often a good deal more complex, not to mention lethal, than it first appears.”

“Or you’re bein’ paranoid.”

“Or, as Sabbat says, I’m being paranoid.” He sat back, refilled his glass, and sighed. “This is all a theory, after all. It’s entirely possible Caine’s dead and washed out to sea, our mysterious murderer is nothing more or less than some poor fool driven insane with hunger, and whoever ambushed Sabbat on the rooftops just happened to-”

“Look an’ sound exactly like the man I know I fuckin’ killed? No. It was Caine, I’d bet my fuckin’ life on it.”

“And I assume you’d make the same wager on the fact he’s dead?”

This time it was Sabbat’s turn to jump to his feet, face flushing. “Fer fuck’s sake, Archer, what d’you fuckin’ want me t’say? I know I killed the bastard, an’ I know he’s the one who tried t’fuckin’ throttle me, an’ if you’re tryin’ t’say I don’t know my own sixdamn mind on account of the fuckin’ Smoke-”


“Don’t you fuckin’ start wi’ me, Archer! I ain’t about t’have this fuckin’ row-”

“And I’m trying very bloody hard not to have it either, Sabbat! Yes, I don’t like you using the damn Smoke – it’s going to kill you, and you know as much, and I hate watching you do that to yourself and knowing I can’t do a damn thing to stop you short of losing you as a friend – but dear gods above that is not the argument I want to have right now!” He stopped, breathing hard, and wondered vaguely when he’d made the decision to stand up and whether it had been a conscious one. Given the fact I don’t remember doing it, that argues for a certain degree of… let us call it emotional overload. So much for attempting to keep my feelings out of this.

“Well… you’re doin’ a fuckin’ bad job of that, mate,” Sabbat said, dryly, after the silence had very almost become intolerable. He coughed, reached into his jacket, and pulled out his cigarette case, lighting up and blowing a thin trail of smoke towards the ceiling before he turned to look towards the other two inhabitants of the room. “Don’t know what the rest o’ you think you’re fuckin’ lookin’ at. You want t’put your eyes back in your heads, or d’y’want me t’do it for you?”

Fest flushed, staring down at his feet again and looking for all the world as though he wanted nothing more than to disappear through the back of his chair. Viola, for her part, set her jaw and looked as though she was about to retort in kind – then she caught Archer’s eye, sighed, and settled back into her own chair with a slight growl of discontent.

“Thank you,” Archer said, and meant it. He took a step backward, picked up his glass of tea again, and took a long, slow drink before settling back down into his chair. “Now. Where were we before I… lost the train of the argument?”

“The fact that Caine’s probably a Turned and we’re all probably fucked,” Viola provided, helpfully. She finished her last mouthful of tea, passed her empty glass to Archer, and continued: “Look. I’m not saying you’re wrong, and yes, it’d explain why I saw him the night of the ball – and why there was that smell that I couldn’t place – but I’m still not seeing how this relates to the fact Fest and I have got to go play spies this evening. Or, for that matter, the fact we still don’t have a workable bloody plan.”

“I mean…” Fest began.

“I’m not saying we don’t have plans,” the werewolf clarified. “I’m saying we have too many of ‘em and none of ‘em work together.” She leaned back, linking her fingers behind her head, and yawned widely. “I don’t much like Amelia’s ideas on what we should be telling the Sinnlenst but I’d rather that than making up something completely out of wholecloth when we don’t know what information they’ve already got on us, no matter what your priest friend reckons we could have them believing.”

“They’re not ‘my priest friend’,” Fest fired back, apparently stung by the criticism. “They’re an Order researcher, which means they actually do know what they’re talking about when it comes to Sinnlenst information gathering.”

“Except fer the fact they ain’t shadow arm an’ have fuck-all knowledge on that side o’ things,” Sabbat pointed out. He turned to Viola. “An’, fer that matter, neither’s your Luciel girl.”

“She’s the one who’s going to be in danger – more danger – if this goes well. She gets a damn say.”

“Viola’s right,” Archer broke in, before the discussion could get any more heated. He refilled the werewolf’s tea glass, passed it back to her with a whispered “Let me handle this”, and continued: “Anneke is an excellent researcher, and there are certainly parts of this mess that I’ll be very happy to follow their lead on, but in this particular case Miss Luciel’s consent is somewhat more important than gaining a tactical advantage over the Sinnlenst’s more academic agents. That isn’t to say that we should follow her plan to the letter – there are certain details in the paper you gave me which I would rather our enemies not have access to – but it should provide the basis for whatever the two of you decide to tell Avebury.”


However, Anneke’s knowledge of what Foreval is up to is not to be discounted, especially in the context of the postscript on that letter she apparently left you, Mr Fest. Adding a few details to the mix which tie in with the projects we know she’s pursuing might well go some way towards sowing discord within the ranks of the Sinnlenst’s younger set – thanks to you, Sabbat, we already know that there’s at least one group who are deeply unhappy with Avebury’s current line of attack, and I would be very surprised if we couldn’t find a way to capitalise on that.”

“Which is all very fuckin’ well,” Sabbat interjected, taking another drag on his cigarette. “But it ain’t givin’ me any fuckin’ steer on what y’need me doin’ on this.” He dropped back down into his chair, blew a smoke ring at the ceiling, and snagged a hunk of cold meat from the remains of the luncheon still spread out on the sideboard. “I ain’t playin’ informant, if that’s what you’re gettin’ at.”

Archer laughed. “Not in the least. Given that you seem to be getting on significantly better with Viola than you were previously, I’m inclined to relax my previous suggestion on your following the two of them to the meeting – assuming, of course, that everyone involved agrees with that course of action.”

It might have been his imagination, but he thought he heard Viola let out a quiet but heartfelt sigh of relief. Sabbat, for his part, just nodded. “Aye. Can do that.”

“After that… well, it’s not as though most of the Sinnlenst know your face, and I know you’ve done more serious disguise work before.” He smiled, despite himself. “How do you feel about infiltrating a Sinnlenst meeting?”

The assassin’s answering lopsided grin was practically feral. “Have t’go in as a servant. Lucky fer us, most of ‘em don’t give two shits about the help long as their glasses get filled on time.”

“Can you keep your temper long enough to do that?”

“Wi’ Smoke? Easy.” He laughed. “Long as y’don’t object to me lightenin’ their pockets on the side.”

“As long as you don’t get caught.”

“Ain’t fuckin’ plannin’ on it.”

“Then feel free to play pickpocket to your heart’s content.” He turned back to the other two. “The three of us, however, have a web of lies to weave. And, if I’m honest, I think this is going to require a good deal more tea.”


It took three hours, an uncountable number of cups of tea, and at least four more repetitions of the same bloody arguments, but they finally ended with something which, to Viola’s mind at least, was pretty solidly workable.

She didn’t like it, of course. She didn’t like any of this – she was an enforcer, fine, but there was a difference between that and infiltration, and the fact that Amelia was neck-deep in the plot wasn’t exactly helping matters – but there wasn’t any good way out of the mess they’d ended up in which didn’t involve lying, sneaking, and generally doing the kind of things she’d up until now managed to avoid dealing with. Mostly, if she was honest, because she wasn’t any bloody good at them.

“Just so we’re clear,” she said, leaning forward to look Fest straight in the eyes, “you’re letting me do the talking on this one.”

The vampire nodded. He didn’t look happy about the idea but, then again, he’d not looked happy about any of this. “Provided you remember to credit me with at least some of the information-gathering. I get the distinct impression that Avebury isn’t going to be overly fussed about getting rid of one of us if he thinks he can get what he needs from the other.”

He wasn’t wrong. Avebury might not be a high-ranking Sinnlenst, and he might be all of nineteen (if that), but he still had the feel of someone who’d be perfectly happy to spend money to have an asset dusted if he felt they’d outlived their usefulness. “Agreed. You’re the one who spied on her at the University, I’m the one who overheard the conversations at the house and went through her bureau for those damn letters. She’s deliberately slipping my watch during study hours, which means he needs to rely on you for information as to what she’s up to then, and you don’t have the unfettered access that I do to the Luciels’ house, so he can’t get rid of me.”

“That… still feels rather heavily weighted towards your side of the equation, if I’m honest.”

“Tough.” She sighed. “Look. There’s no way he’s getting rid of you without Lucy bloody Foreval kicking up a row, so you’ve got at least that much protection. I don’t.”

“That’s not as reassuring as you seem to think it is. For a start, I still don’t know what kind of hold she has over me – if she can see through my eyes, like Mr- like Sabbat suggested, then we’ve already ruined this entire exercise before it’s even begun.”

Shit. She’d been trying not to think about that particular possibility. Then again… “Why would she bother to send you that note, if she could see what you were up to?”

“To try and upset me? If that’s the case, it’s working!” He stood up, pacing agitatedly. “I don’t know why she’s doing what she’s doing. I don’t know why anyone’s doing what they’re doing, partly because nobody bothers to actually tell me!”

“What do you think I’m-”

“Did you know I was a sorcerer? Because I bloody didn’t!”



He hadn’t meant to say it out loud. Truth be told, he hadn’t meant to say it at all. But apparently he’d done that now, whether he’d meant it or no – and, judging by the way everyone else in the room was looking at him, it wasn’t the kind of thing you could just pretend not to have said.

Damn. Damn damn damn damn damn. Ah well. Better be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, I suppose – though I’m fairly certain it’d be better still not to be hanged at all.

“I said, did you know I was a sorcerer? Because I had to find out from Anneke, and they’d apparently assumed literally everyone knew, so I honestly don’t know what to believe any more!”

Viola was staring at him as though he’d suddenly grown a second head. Sabbat looked like he couldn’t make up his mind whether this was an utter revelation or the funniest joke he’d heard all day, though Fest got the impression he knew a little more about the situation than he was letting on. And Archer?

Archer looked… calm. In the same way that an iceberg looked calm, right before the ship ran straight into it. “I’d been hoping to find a better time to tell you, but I rather think that ship has sailed. Yes, I did know you were a sorcerer. In fact, I’ve known since the day I met you, and had my suspicions for a good few months before that.” He closed his eye, leaning back in his chair and taking a deep breath. “As Anneke probably told you, the Order keeps a close watch on any sorcerers and potential sorcerers in the city – as much for your protection as for our own gain, since the Sinnlenst have previously made a habit of killing those they perceive as a threat to their stated goals, and natural magic-users fall very much into that category. Our original plan was to have Lady Luciel take you aside at the ball and explain the situation to you – as an experienced magician of some note, she would have been more than capable of assuaging your fears, answering any questions you might have had, and, if she considered it the correct time, broaching the possibility of your joining the Order once you’d got your magic somewhat more under control. Unfortunately, circumstances rather put paid to that idea.”

“Lucy Foreval?”

“Lucy Foreval,” the older vampire confirmed. “Given her abilities, the moment we realised you’d been in contact with her we had to very quickly reassess our plans and, to cut a long story short, the idea of actually explaining what you were was somewhat left by the wayside in the process. I’ll own that I could have pushed harder for it to have been included, but-”

“-by the time the Council got back around to talking about it, you’d ended up dead without knowing how, throwing up blood you didn’t remember drinking, and neck-deep in a Sinnlenst blackmail plot,” Viola finished off. She still looked more than a little unsettled by the whole thing (which hardly seemed fair – she wasn’t the one who’d had people lying to her by omission for the past couple of weeks, after all), but she’d apparently recovered enough to be taking sides. “Even if I’d known – which I didn’t, for the record – I wouldn’t have told you until after this business with Avebury was finished.”

“And that’s supposed to make me feel better?” Fest growled.

Viola met his eyes, unflinching. “No.”

“Good! Because- it doesn’t!” And now I sound like a petulant child. Wonderful. That’s definitely going to make them take me seriously.

“Brat’s got a point.”

For a brief moment, Fest was suddenly sure he’d started hallucinating on top of everything else. Because if he hadn’t started losing his grip on reality, the reality he existed in was one in which Sabbat had just agreed with him.

From the look on Archer’s face, he was having the much the same thought. “I- Sorry?”

“I said, the brat’s got a point.” He leaned back in his chair and thumped his boots up onto the table, grinning in a way that looked almost malicious. “Y’got a habit of assumin’ y’know what’s best fer people, Archer, an’ it ain’t winnin’ you many friends at the moment.”

“I don’t-” Archer began. Then he stopped, took a deep breath, closed his eye for a moment, and said, very calmly, “No. You’re right.”

Now it was Sabbat’s turn to look as though the world had just turned upside down on him. “Y’what?”

“You’re right.” He stood up, squared his shoulders, and offered Fest his hand. “My apologies, Mr Fest – I should have told you, and you’re well within your rights to be angry with me for that fact. You may be young, but you’re a damn sight more competent than I and others seem to have been giving you credit for.”

“Thank you,” Fest said, for want of anything else to say. He’d honestly not been expecting an apology, and wasn’t entirely sure what to do with this one now he had it. Especially since I think he just implied he’d previously thought I was incompetent.

On the other hand, it’s not as though I’ve given him and the rest of the Order much reason to think otherwise. And…

And when someone significantly older and more powerful than you offered you an unreserved apology in the same cadence they’d use to an equal, it was probably a very good idea to take them up on it.

“I accept your apology, Mr Archer.” And now I sound like a pompous ass. Well done. “I- That is- Um.”

Archer was still holding his hand out, though he was starting to look slightly awkward (not helped by the fact that Sabbat was very clearly amused by the whole thing and equally clearly not trying to hide it), and a small unworthy part of Fest’s mind wondered exactly how long he could make the older vampire stand there.

The larger and rather more sensible part of his mind pointed out that that was possibly one of the absolute pettiest ways to deal with the situation, and likely going to do less than nothing to persuade anyone else in the room that he was a serious and competent adult who was absolutely fit to be trusted with a fairly bloody important spying mission.

But, nevertheless, he let just a little more time than was needed go by before he took hold of Archer’s hand and gave it a firm and hopefully competent-feeling shake. “Are we square, sir?”

“I believe I should be the one asking you that, Mr Fest,” Archer said, though he sounded (to Fest’s ears, at least) somewhat relieved.“So, sir, are we square?”

“We’re square,” Fest said, and meant it.

“Well thank the Ancestors for that,” Viola interjected, dryly. She held up her pocketwatch, tapping a finger against the glass. “We’re almost out of time.”


Copyright © 2020 by Finn McLellan.  All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Blood on the Snow: Chapter 20 (draft)

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